The Life and Surroundings of Seven Hundred Convicts.


The Prisoners in the Dining Hall and what they Live on.


After Dinner Exercises the School Room and Choir Practice.


(From Our Special Correspondent.) [To the Globe]

KINGSTON, July 15.

The aspect of the penitentiary buildings at Kingston is not so gloomy as popular imagination conceives. The great lengths of wall that slope down to the shore on two sides, and front the lake and Portsmouth harbour on the others, are cheerful and elegant in appearance. The masonary and architecture are in good taste, and the lightócoloured stone has a pleasing effect. The height of the walls, and the watch-towers which here and there surmount them, are the only appearances which suggest the penal nature of the institution; but these are not peculiar to penitentiaries, and do not lessen to any marked degree the pleasing general effect of the surroundings.

The great gateway, with its locks and bars, and guards standing key in hand, is the first appearance which suggests the gloominess of the life within. And the portal passed, the well kept winding gravel walks, the grassy lawn, and the flower garden, flashing in the full glory of crimson, blue, and green, and redolent with perfume, are not sufficient to draw the stranger's view from the barred windows that rise row above row in front, and make him realize to some extent the feelings of the manacled man who passes the gloomy portals behind and hears the hinges grate and the lock click a doleful welcome to this receptacle of blasted lives. The spacious corridors with the rooms of the officers on either side are tasteful, but the pervading gloom is heightened by the appearance of occasional convicts in their garb, one half black or brown, the other yellow or white.


[...] The cells, which are only about two feet and a half wide, contain a low couch at their farther end, filling up the cell from side to side, and affording the sleeper but little room to turn in his dismal night thoughts. At the head of the couch is a little barred opening, on the sill of which a lamp is placed and kept burning till 9 p.m., when the whole place becomes dark, and nothing is heard save the stealthy step of the guard as he paces up and down the corridors, or through holes in the wall opposite each cell observes, unsuspected, the movements of any prisoner he may deem it necessary to watch. When the prisoners retire at night, each row of cells is looked by a single movement - an improvement invented by a former convict. [...]


Before half-past twelve the prisoners had finished their repast and sat quietly waiting the orders of the Deputy-Warden. A strange assemblage it seemed. Here were gathered nearly seven hundred of the murderers, thieves, and desperados of the country. Grey hairs appeared here and there; middle-aged men were present in considerable numbers; but the majority were comparatively young men, many not out of their teens. Dark, sullen countenances and lurid eyes in which slumbered the fire of terrible passion, pale expressionless? faces, dull, stupid, and sensual ones were the most noticeable, but here and there were the faces, sad and thoughtful, of young men who evidently had many a pang of the keenest remorse when they thought of the "what might have been." In other garb than the prisons monotonous bi-colours, many might have passed for Divinity students, while fully [illegible] the whole assemblage were not more [illegible] looking than some of the gangs of young bucks who congregate in our parks and at our places of resort on public holidays. Out of the seven hundred convicts, one hundred were murderers, while forgers and thieves made up a large proportion of the remaining number.


[...] it being a shaving day, a dozen or more convict barbers came forward and were furnished with razors. Then on file after another of convicts came forward and took their turn in the chairs. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic and Episcopal choirs withdrew to their separate chapels for half an hour's practice in vocal music, and a class of uneducated prisoners went upstairs to their classroom for half an hour's study. Your correspondent followed to the class-room and found the prisoners scanning over their first, second, or third books, or obtaining volumes from the library, the existence of which brings into vivid contrast the prison life of Howard's time and that of our own day. In the spacious Episcopal chapel a choir of over a dozen convicts, including three negroes, were practising hymns, another convict manipulating the organ. The voices were clear and melodious, and kept time with remarkable precision.


At one o'clock the prisoners filed out into the yard, where, after being searched, they were marched off to their respective shops. The shops are a most interesting feature of the penitentiary, and well worthy of extended notice. A large foundry for the manufacture of carpenter's hardware and castings for Government buildings, a carpenter shop and furniture factory, a tailor shop, a shoe shop, and a stone-cutting establishment, furnish employment for nearly all the prisoners. Picking oakum and breaking stone engage the attention of a few. The choice of an occupation largely lies with each prisoner, but, of course, each preference must meet with the approval of the prison authorities before being acceded to. In the washing and drying rooms connected with the prison the very latest improvements are used and the same may be said of every department of the institution. [...]

Source: Unkown, "Kingston Penitentiary, The Life and Surroundings of Seven Hundred Convicts," The Globe, July 16, 1881.

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